By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — "We're starting to tread in a dangerous area," said Ed Emond, referring to reductions in classroom teachers and staff in Laconia schools. Emond, the business administrator of the School District, and School Superintendent Phil McCormack presented the proposed 2016-2017 budget Monday to the City Council.
The budget includes $1,747,545 in reduced expenditures, $522,696 more than required to comply with the city tax cap in order, Emond explained, to provide funds to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with the unions representing the teaching and support staff and as well as other unanticipated expenses. The largest share of the reductions personnel costs represent the largest share of the reductions, which include eight teaching and three special education positions, three administrative positions and nine secretarial and support positions.
By contrast, the controversial decision to schedule band as an after-school program spared $50,000 in costs. McCormack said the decision is intended to serve academic purposes by enabling students playing in the band to also enroll for Advanced Placement classes, which will be offered in the fourth block, the time slot band traditionally met. At the same time, sports practice will begin at 3 p.m., enabling students to play both in the band and on the field.
The school district faced a decrease of $683,338 in revenues from sources other than property taxes, of which the a drop of $455,338 in state aid is the most significant. The tax cap allows the school district to raise $410,944 in property taxes, reducing the net revenue shortfall to $272,394.
Meanwhile, expenses are projected to rise by $1,143,255, with anticipated jumps of $660,000 in special education costs and $390,000 in health insurance costs accounting for most of the increase. Seven retirements will spare $190,800, trimming the growth of expenditures to $952,445.
To offset the loss of revenue and meet the rise in expenses while budgeting within the limits of the tax cap, the school board identified reductions of $1,224,849.
McCormack told the councilors that rising and unanticipated special education costs are driving increases in the budget. He said that the proportion of students with special needs is 5 percent above the state average. This year, there were 197 students with special needs enrolled in the three elementary schools, 127 of them at Woodlands Heights School, where 45 were enrolled in its preschool program. The total number students with special needs in the elementary schools is projected to rise to 203 in the next school year. There are 81 special-needs students currently enrolled at the middle school, a number expected to increase to 86 in 2016-2017. Likewise, the number of special-needs students at the high school is projected to increase from 86 to 96.
McCormack stressed that the costs are difficult to forecast from the numbers alone, explaining that if a student must be placed in either a daylong or residential program, the cost of tuition and transportation can range from more than $30,000 to more than $100,000 per student.
Emond emphasized the importance of negotiating a contract with the teachers. He noted that the average salary in the district is below the state average, while salaries in neighboring districts, including Inter-Lakes Cooperative, Gilford, Plymouth and Pemi-Baker Regional are above it.
"We're losing teachers to these other districts," he said. "We don't want to go without a collective bargaining agreement."
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